How in the world did a nice urban boy from New Jersey wind up saving lives and improving farming in Africa? Matt Forti had zero experience in agriculture and had never been to Africa. In 2005, fellow Kellogg classmate Andrew Youn returned from Kenya with shocking tales of a food shortage so severe that people were literally starving to death. Farmers simply couldn’t grow food year-round, forcing families to endure “the hunger season” before harvest. This “season” had long term effects: One in ten children did not live past age five, and roughly 40% of surviving children are mentally/physically stunted from a life-long starvation diet.
In 2006 Matt and Andrew wrote a business plan, raised money from 150 classmates and launched One Acre Fund, a nonprofit to help families in East Africa. From a pilot program providing better seeds for 40 families, One Acre has now grown to a staff of 5,400 and provides multiple services to 550,000 farmers in six countries (Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda). Laser-focused on impact, One Acre boasts a 50%+ improvement in farmer income with 98% of loans repaid in full.
Initially, Matt volunteered as Board Chair while Andrew worked in Kenya. From the start, they placed an unwavering emphasis on both measurement and experimentation. Matt was a consultant with The Bridgespan Group at the time and was gaining experience in evaluation, steadily applying what he learned from his day job to One Acre. In April of 2013, his volunteer status came to an end and he joined One Acre as the U.S. Managing Director.
One Acre is funded by the cream of the philanthropic crop: Echoing Green, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the Global Innovation Fund, Echoing Green, Draper Richards Kaplan, Walmart Foundation, the Master Card Foundation and the Barr Foundation. It has garnered recognition and awards including:
• Forbes Impact 30
• Fast Company Magazine’s Most Innovative Companies in Africa
• The World Food Prize
• Financial Times / IFC Sustainable Banking Award
• Features in The Financial Times, The Economist, The New York Times, The Guardian and PBS New Hour.
For its 10th anniversary, One Acre returned to the original 40 pilot program families to check on their progress. Theresa Wanyama, one of the original 40, had doubled her crop yield and dramatically reduced hunger in the first season. She then diversified her crop into spinach and enrolled in a tree-planting program, planting a border of trees around her house. Each tree could return $5-$6 from an investment of just pennies. Theresa radiated with pride as she shared that four of her kids are now in university.
Despite the awards, acclaim and success for One Acre Fund, Matt maintains a Yoda-like humbleness. His calm is perhaps attributable to his recent experiences with mediation or his regular tennis and soccer games. Matt, a consummate professional and former work-aholic, has been attempting to adopt a healthier work/life balance. He now turns his cell phone off after work so he can focus on his young daughter and son. He loves to do crossword puzzles and play Words with Friends. He officiates track and field events for the Special Olympics. But despite everything that he has learned about agriculture and farming, Matt does not have garden.